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Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Page: 21368


Ms HALL (7:45 PM) —Before I turn to the substance of my speech, I would like to pick up on a point that the previous speaker, the member for Moore, made. He said that the government's policy in the bills before the House—Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003—were going to open the doors to all students that were academically qualified to attend university. I disagree with him, because it does not make it accessible to all students; it only makes it accessible to students who have the financial means to pay. I represent an electorate that has some families that are quite economically disadvantaged, and this legislation will preclude prospective students from attending university. It will make it much harder for them than it is already. There are already a number of social and economic barriers that they have to transcend, but this places a few more hurdles in front of them and will make it much more difficult for them to attend university.

Yesterday in question time the Minister for Education, Science and Training said that people paying to go to university was the equivalent of some universities allocating an extra five marks to students in particular regions. This happens in the Newcastle region that I live in. Once again it is working towards getting rid of barriers that are in place and addressing the social and economic disadvantages of people in those areas and in country areas. I would like the government to be mindful of the fact that any changes as such should be about increasing equity not putting barriers in front of people who are disadvantaged.

The Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and associated bill are about Australia's future and will determine the type of nation we will be in the 21st century. This legislation is the government's blueprint for educating young Australians. It should be legislation that maximises access to education, increases the skills level of the Australian work force and ensures Australia's global competitiveness. Unfortunately, the government's higher education agenda is encapsulated in this legislation. It is an agenda that is driven by an elitist philosophy—a philosophy that has led the government to an obsessive attack on the structure and the accessibility of higher education in Australia which will transfer the cost for attending universities to Australian families and students.

The legislation is set to entrench and increase the number of full fee paying places at university while reducing the number of fully funded HECS places, increasing HECS fees, introducing a loan scheme, placing a time limit of five years on students' ability to access HECS and blackmailing universities into introducing extreme industrial relations policies. The government has been arguing that its legislative agenda is about flexibility, but it is being very inflexible in this area. The legislation is also about oversighting the decline in higher education and facilitating the brain drain—the loss of the best and the brightest students in Australia, the people that we look to to undertake research and keep Australia at the cutting edge of the global economy. These students are going overseas at an increasing rate. One thing that has marked this government's policy in the area of education is the number of bright young students that have left this country and students undertaking postgraduate courses that have been forced to go overseas to pursue their careers.

According to the OECD's Education at a glance 2003 report, Australia has the second lowest university enrolment rate of any OECD country. Between 1995 and 2000 public investment in universities declined by 11 per cent while the average OECD growth was 21 per cent. In a country that sees itself as being very competitive in the world arena and that has enjoyed a very high standard of living over the years, this is just not good enough. It demonstrates the government's failure in the area of education and has led to skill shortages in a number of industries. This has been reflected in the brain drain and the decline in the standard of living, as I have already mentioned.

The previous speaker talked about his training in medicine, which made me think. I represent an electorate in this parliament that has a significant shortage of doctors. No matter how hard we try, we cannot attract doctors to the area. The government's outer metropolitan area policies—it is an area of work force shortage—have not been able to attract doctors to the area. I ask myself why. The answer is quite simple: this government's policies have led to a shortage of doctors. There have not been enough doctors trained and, unfortunately, the people of the Central Coast of New South Wales are suffering because of the government's policies.

Education needs to be inclusive. It needs to be there in a way that ensures that, as I was saying at the beginning, all young people can access it. Under this government, there have not been enough fully funded university places created, even to maintain the current numbers for the next three years. The Howard government has cut around 8,000 of the HECS places that we will have by 2007 because it is not properly funding student places. This means that thousands of school leavers will miss out on a university place over the next three years. Students who have planned their future around attending university and who have the academic ability to go to university but who do not have the financial means to pay for it will be missing out on those places. After 2007, publicly funded places will not even keep pace with population growth.

This is in stark contrast to what the Labor Party would do. If elected at the next election—or, should I say, when elected at the next election—the Labor Party will create over 2,000 new full- and part-time university places every year for Australians. We recognise the importance of university studies to Australian students and to Australia's economy, and we also recognise the importance of TAFE education. We do not believe that you invest in TAFEs or apprenticeships at the expense of universities. We believe you invest in both. We believe that you should have a skilled work force, and the only way you are going to get a skilled work force is through education. That is why we on this side of the House put education as a priority. That is why we oppose the Howard government wanting to increase HECS fees by 30 per cent. That is why we oppose the $5 billion of cuts to our universities that have taken place under the Howard government. That is why we oppose the policies that have led to enormous student debts. And that is why we oppose the $100,000 degree.

We really believe that education is the future of our nation. We believe that without an educated population we in Australia will fall behind the rest of the world. But the Howard government is so dedicated to creating an American style system, where money more than marks opens university doors, that it is pursuing this policy of full fee paying students to the detriment of all other students, and particularly the students whom I represent in this place. I understand that the Courier-Mail today reported the minister for education as saying that he is going to be cutting public funding for courses that he deems inappropriate. That moves away from his promise that no more than 50 per cent of students in any university course would be full fee paying students. One hundred per cent of the students enrolled in those courses that the minister deems are `not in the nation's interest' will be full fee paying. So how can we trust this government?

In the remaining moments that I have, I would like to concentrate on the implications for the area that I represent in this parliament—particularly the Central Coast—and on how this government's policy and legislation will impact on the Central Coast and, particularly, Ourimbah campus of Newcastle University. Ourimbah campus was deemed to be the greatest achievement of the Hawke government on the Central Coast by Peter Baldwin, who was the minister at the time. It is a multisector campus. It has contributed a lot to the economy of the Central Coast and to the educational opportunities of people living on the Central Coast—an area where students have traditionally been quite disadvantaged. The government's failure to recognise Newcastle University as a regional university—and that includes Ourimbah campus as well as Callaghan campus in Newcastle—will significantly disadvantage that university. The government could see fit to recognise 58 other universities as regional universities, but it decided that it would not give recognition to the Newcastle University campuses.

The minister visited the Central Coast. He went there and made noises, but he did not act. The Central Coast is being disadvantaged and ignored by the Howard government. It really upsets me that I am the only Central Coast member who comes into this parliament and fights for services on the Central Coast and fights to ensure that our university continues to operate and offer courses to our students who live on the Central Coast. I am the only member from the Central Coast who does not want to see our young people denied the opportunities that young people in other areas have. The failure to recognise Newcastle University as a regional university has enormous financial implications. Add that to the fact that the previous minister's decision to allow overenrolment of 20 per cent is to end, and it will mean a net reduction of places at Ourimbah campus.

Here are some facts and figures. The Central Coast has the lowest university participation rate of any region in Australia, and now it is going to be significantly more disadvantaged by the legislation that is before us in parliament today—legislation that is supposed to ensure that our young people are able to get the education and skills they need. At the moment, the university needs 1,000 more fully funded places to reach the national average. It is an area of extreme population growth, yet the government is not assisting the Central Coast in any way.

The member for Dobell, in his first newsletter, really upset the university. He suggested that university education was not important, and therefore trivialised the university on the Central Coast for a number of people who attended that university. I had a number of phone calls from people complaining about it, including people who work at that university. That approach is also reflected in this piece of legislation. The simple fact that neither the member for Robertson nor the member for Dobell has spoken in this debate to argue for more resources for our Central Coast university speaks for itself. The people of the Central Coast look to the members who represent them in this parliament to see that they get a fair deal. They want us to ensure that their university survives, grows and thrives. Unfortunately, it seems like it is left to me to argue for our university. I understand there is going to be a stoppage at the university's Ourimbah, Callaghan and Hunter campuses on Thursday because the staff are so upset and unhappy about the direction that higher education is taking and the direction of the government's legislation. I want to finish by emphasising that the most important thing a government can do is to ensure that all people have the opportunity to attend university—and that should be decided on their ability, not on their ability to pay.